In depth interview with Guillermo del Toro

The Mexican director talks Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy 2 and dropping turds on the heads of Hollywood studio execs...

In the summer, we got ourselves along to the Cheltenham Screenwriter's Festival and grabbed some quality time with Pan's Labyrinth director, Guillermo del Toro. The Mexican maestro had hauled ass all the way from LA just to speak at the festival, which we thought was pretty terrific of him. Here's what he had to say to us...

So tell us about Pan’s Labyrinth...
The idea for the movie was to create what I like to call a ‘mirror-movie’, to complement The Devil’s Backbone. So hopefully one day you can screen them together and see a certain continuity: the way fantasy and reality intermingle; the way the story unfolds; structured the same so they can feel like companion pieces. The difference is that Pan’s Labyrinth is about dealing with fully blown fascism in 1944, whereas The Devil’s Backbone concerns the end of the war, before fascism had really installed itself in their lives. Pan’s Labyrinth combines fairytale aspects with the fascist repression of the guerrillas in the woods. What I really set out to do with Pan’s Labyrinth was to make an anti-fascist fairytale - which I think is very pertinent to our times right now! I really like exploring big, political events through metaphors, and I think horror is a very political genre.

What was it about the character of Pan that so attracted you?
Well the genesis of this project, like so many others, goes back to my childhood. I was partially raised by my grandmother who was a staunch Catholic. Now for several years I used to share this huge bed with my brother. And when I’d wake up in the middle of the night I’d look over to the corner of the room and slowly the shadows would start to move and then I’d see a hand come out, and then I’d see the face of a goat-man, and then I’d see his left leg and it was a goat-leg! And then I’d start screaming and someone would come to my aid - probably my grandmother! So the movie’s pregnant with these moments, and has obviously always been there in some sort of Jungian way before I even knew who Pan was.

Your movies are very political, aren’t they?
Politically, I always think that allegory is the most powerful form of discussion, the most powerful form of bringing heavy political ideas to the table, if you will. I much prefer watching a George A Romero movie than an Oliver Stone movie. I’d much rather watch Dawn Of The Dead or Day Of The Dead as expressions of what’s wrong with America, than JFK, for example. As much as I admire the filmmaking, I think it’s an incredibly blunt way to approach the subject. It’s far more effective in my view to address big subjects as parables – there’s no better way to articulate what it’s like to be a teenager than Frankenstein, for example.

You’re going to be directing a film based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches – how are you approaching the project?
I would like to make the last third of the book the way the book was - which has a different ending from the previous movie. I would really like to make a scary movie for kids. I consider Hellboy a movie for kids – my five year old watches it, my ten year old watches it. I think it’s a great movie to discover when you’re six or eight.

Is there a benchmark for you in this regard? A truly scary movie, aimed specifically at kids?
It’s a hugely tough thing to pull off. You know, there are very scary moments in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! There are scary moments in all the Disney movies. But it is rare to see a scary movie for kids. Not any come to mind right now. And I would very much like to make one. Roald Dahl had such a great affinity for the horror genre. He was a great writer of the unexpected. I mean most people remember him for his children’s books and rightly so but his dark tales are really dark, y’know? The Witches is the really the best of both those worlds.

What happened with Halo?
“I’m off that project. They’re hiring a director right now, and I obviously can’t say who he is, but they’ve made a very good choice in my view.

Was the fact that you wanted to make Hellboy 2 the deciding factor in not being involved?
The timing became very awkward. It got to the point where we mutually agreed that whilst Hellboy 2 was still alive – that there was still a chance of getting it made – it would always be first choice. And they really didn’t want to wait until Hellboy 2 had either got made or died. We amicably decided that it was better if I walked.

Was it a close decision between those two or was Hellboy 2 the clear winner?
Well I loved the universe of Halo, but I don’t know if Hellboy 2 is going to happen or not, but just the prospect that it might is enough to make me wait. I have been waiting for it and working on it for a while now so... I mean it will be such a good follow-up to the first one because with this one I don’t have to worry about establishing the characters or anything and it will be much more fun to write and direct. But, y’know, The Flood (Halo’s zombie legion) is The Flood, man, so it wasn’t easy. There’s certainly a beautiful movie there, more so in Halo 1 than Halo 2, actually.

People now expect certain things of a Guillermo del Toro movie... but can you ever envisage yourself making a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan rom-com like You’ve Got Mail!
Terms of Endearment would be better.... ha ha ha ha.... no I’m just kiddding. No, I could never do that.

How much of an influence on your early career was Dick Smith [make-up/effects guru responsible forThe Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist and The Deer Hunter]?
He was a huge influence. I enrolled on his course in 1982, in New York. It was quite DIY. You met with Dick, he looked at your work, critiqued it, then you went away and worked like a mutherfucker on it before you met with him again. He was a shining example of a really good human being, someone who is really very humble about his craft. He really drummed into me that success is 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration and that is something I’ve really taken on. I think I have a very blue-collar attitude to filmmaking, I really roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty.

If you died tomorrow, what would you regret not having done?
Oh, crap. Travelled more, definitely. I love to travel, anywhere in the world. Wherever it is... India... Tibet... wherever. I’ll go anywhere.

Have you ever been close to death?
Many times. In Mexico you’re close to death all the time. I’ve had guns put to the side of my head on quite a few occasions. I competed in cross-country motorcycle races when I was younger, so I’ve had many bad bike accidents, too.

What was the worst?
The most ridiculous one was also the worst. I was actually riding a city bike, with my wife on the back. I was so incredibly smart that I wasn’t wearing a helmet, and it began to rain. So I leant back as we were going along and said to my wife, ‘y’know what? I’m going to move back into the middle of the road because quite often they leave uncovered manholes at the side.’ Anyway, I was half-way through saying the word ‘manholes’ when the whole of the front wheel disappeared into an uncovered manhole. It threw us off the bike and I almost landed on a pile of bricks but managed to stop myself with my hand, but then my wife landed on my head. She literally stapled my head against the fucking bricks and I had a huge gash in the shape of a ‘C’ on my head. That actually tore my eyelid and I had to have surgery. It was the last time I ever rode a bike, that’s for sure!

Have you ever seen anyone die?
Many, many times. I’ve seen a shitload of corpses. I’ve seen people burned alive. I’ve seen people shot. I mean, I’m a Mexican – the cliché is true, we do live very close to death.

Are you scared of dying?
No, not at all. Apart from if it’s a slow death. A fast death I can take anytime.

Ideally then, how would you like to go?
I would like to avoid dying if possible, I do like living! The worst I think for me though would be a really bedridden death. A very slow, prolonged one would be fucking bad, I think. Like to the stage where people have to flip you over in bed to wipe your ass and stuff. To me that would be the absolute worst. It would be humiliating and frustrating. Where inside you are still you, still with your wits about you, but everything else has packed up. That would be the worst. Or maybe in an airplane crash? I’m sure the time it takes a plane to fall must feel like a fucking eternity. The powerlessness of it would be fucking horrendous.

How about the best way then? Maybe something dramatic like jumping off Niagara Falls or feeding yourself to some greedy sharks?
Y’know, for me, it would have to be a really good, clean shot to the head. That would be fast. It would have to be a good place in the head. Maybe in that place between the spine and the skull, they could shoot me there to blow the candles out.

How would you like your funeral to be?
I would love to have no fucking funeral at all. Just fucking burn me to a cinder then take the ash and scatter it somewhere windy where it gets in everyone’s fucking eyes like The Big Lebowski! Ha ha ha ha ha. No, I hate funerals. I hate going to them. I hate having anything to do with them. If I can get away with not having one, then that would be great.

Do you believe in the afterlife?
No. You only have one hand of cards. That’s pretty underwhelming as it is. Yes it’s a wonderful world to live in, but why think there’s something better or something more? Although, having said that, I can’t say I’ve got the tools to deny that there’s one...

If you were to come back though, in which form do you think it would be?
It might be as a porcupine. That would be cool. I’d also like to come back as a lion and just sleep all day. And scratch my big, lion balls, too. And mate and hunt. In fact just solid mating and hunting would be pretty good!

What about heaven... Have you booked your ticket do you think?
Well a lot of people think about death, and they spend their lives thinking about going to fucking heaven, but then you die and then that’s it, I think. Game over.

What about ghosts? Your work suggests you believe in them...
I know there’s something that resembles ghosts because I heard one once, and because I’ve spoken to very, very solid people who I trust implicitly who’ve seen them. But what that is? I’m not sure. It is a physical phenomenon without doubt; some sort of material memory or something.

If you came back as a ghost, who would you haunt?
Aw, fuck man, I’d have a fucking list like this (opens arms wide). A fucking huge list of possible hauntees to work my way through! Lots of Hollywood studio executives, definitely. I won’t give you names but they know who they are. I’d plague those fuckers. I’d make their lives miserable! Everywhere they went, I’d be. When they were walking along the street, I’d be there poking them with sticks. When they’re on the crapper, I’d be fiddling with their ears. When they walked out of their mansions in the morning to go to work in their fucking Armani suits, I’d drop turds on their heads. When they’re squeezing a pimple on their fat asses in the shower, I’d be right there. When they’re banging their wives and secretaries, I’d be on their fucking shoulders muttering away in their ears. They’d be like, “stop watching mutherfucker! You’re putting me off!” Fuck! In fact, that would be really, really great. I’d love to come back as the most annoying ghost ever.

So when are you going to make some Hollywood marketing man’s day by working with Benicio [del Toro]?
Well I’m actually in talks with Universal about a horror movie Benicio and I want to shoot together, so hopefully it won’t be long. Y’know, I have a funny story about Benicio. Two years ago at the Cannes film festival, we were both staying in the same hotel. I was getting fucking phone calls at all hours from girls outside the hotel. I’d like pick up the phone half-asleep and some drunk girl would be like (sexy voice) ‘Benicio, let me come up and fuck you’. Then during the day I’d get not so drunk girls calling up and they’d be like, (timid voice) ‘Benicio, please let me come in and fuck you’. I’d be like ‘lady, if you come up here you’re in for a fuckin’ big shock!’